Essays and Criticism
Dramatic Tension in Catch-22
A book that was widely acclaimed a classic upon its appearance and that has suffered no loss of critical esteem deserves many critical examinations. Now, more than ten years after its first publication in 1961, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 may justify another attempt to fix certain qualities in it more precisely than has yet been done. My special concern here is the pattern of dramatic tension between the preposterous events of the story and the built-in dimension of laughter. It is part of the pattern that the laughter, intermittent and trailing away just before the end, contributes to a catharsis in which the grimness of war provides the dominant memory.
It is part of the book's greatness that its hilarious force comes so near to a standoff with the grimness. Heller has achieved his declared purpose, mentioned elsewhere, not to use humor as a goal, but as a means to an end. "The ultimate effect is not frivolity but bitter pessimism," he said (Time, Mar. 4, 1966). And yet the alternating play of humor and horror creates a dramatic tension throughout that allows the book to be labeled as a classic both of humor and of war. It is not "a comic war novel" despite the fact that comedy and war are held more or less in solution, for the war is not comic but horrible—this we are not allowed to forget. The laughter repeatedly breaks through the tight net of frustration in which the characters struggle only to sink back as the net repairs itself and holds the reader prisoned in its outrageous bonds.
Right here the unskillful reader may protest that Catch-22 is a comic war novel. For who could believe that war is conducted as the novel pictures it—realism blandly ignored, motivations distorted beyond recognition, plausibility constantly violated. Even conceding that war is not peace, that the conditions of any war are abnormal, could any serious work stray so far from what we know of human character?
The answer lies in an artistic strategy relating to the thesis of the novel, which, put simply, is this: War is irrational; and the representative things that happen in war are likewise irrational, including man's behavior in war. This thesis is an underlying assumption, a donnee, illustrated not documentarily but imaginatively throughout the book. It is, in terms of the book, unarguable—you take it or leave it—for the author has seen to it that all the evidence favors his thesis. What he asks, and it is everything, is that his readers accept the credibility of his characters and their actions, if not at face value, then as wild, ingratiating exaggeration that nevertheless carries the indestructible truth that war is irrational.
It would be an uncritical reader indeed who would accept at face value the greater part of what is related in this hilarious, harrowing book. For the absurd, the ridiculous, the ludicrous, are pyramided, chapter after chapter, through the lengthy book's entire 463 pages.
Starting with the opening page in which Captain Yossarian, the book's nonhero, is goldbricking in a hospital bed and censoring letters which he as censoring officer signs "Washington Irving" and sometimes with variant whimsicality "Irving Washington," to the last page in which "Nately's whore" makes a final but unsuccessful attempt to stab Yossarian because he had told her of Nately's death—through all this the predominance of the outre in events and behavior is unchallenged. One such episode has Yossarian appearing naked in formation to be pinned with the Distinguished Flying Cross by General Dreedle. Another has Lieutenant Milo Minderbinder directing his buddies in the bombing of their own camp and leaving the runways and the mess halls intact so they could make a proper return landing and have a warm snack before retiring. But it is useless to enumerate. "So many monstrous events were occurring that he (the chaplain) was no longer positive which events were monstrous and which were really taking place." That quoted sentence can stand as characterizing the events of the entire book.
The effect of such wildly imagined actions is an artistic triumph in which the reader perceives the author's attitude as overtly playful in expression and managed event, this being the only way, or at least a meritoriously acceptable way, of facing the fundamental inhumanity and irrationality of war. The author begins with an absurdum, though the reader does not always recognize it as such, and makes it into a further and unmistakable reductio ad absurdum. It thus becomes unabashed hyperbole; its literary costume is familiar to one who has read Cervantes, or Rabelais, or Swift, or the American humorists of the Old Southwest and their principal heir Mark Twain who could be as darkly pessimistic as is the author of Catch-22.
Heller's comic genius, however, does not come to rest in the mere contrivances of exaggeration, daft though the exaggerations are. No part of the whole texture of objectively rendered dialogue, narrative, description, and introspective characterization fails to enhance the total artistry. Of random examples, let us cite first a bit of comic circularity—not hard to find—such as this one in which the staff psychiatrist, Major Sanderson, questions Yossarian:
"Hasn't it ever occurred to you that in your promiscuous pursuit of women you are merely trying to assuage your subconscious fears of sexual impotence?"
"Yes, sir, it has."
"Then why do you do it?"
"To assuage my fears of sexual impotence."
Even in a paragraph of only ten lines, Heller can blend a telling bit of narrative with characterization and cynical reflective analysis:
Nately was a sensitive, rich, goodlooking boy with dark hair, trusting eyes, and a pain in his neck when he awoke on the sofa early the next morning and wondered dully where he was. His nature was invariably gentle and polite. He had lived for almost twenty years without trauma, tension, hate, or neurosis, which was proof to Yossarian of just how crazy he really was. His childhood had been a pleasant, though disciplined, one. He got on well with his brothers and sisters, and he did not hate his mother and father, even though they had both been very good to him.
Verbal humor crops up with considerable...
(The entire section is 2638 words.)
He Took Off: Yossarian and the Different Drummer
Yossarian of Joseph Heller's Catch-22 has been called a coward, an amoralist, a cop-out, a traitor. Others see him as a casualty, an individualist, a prophet of love, the last soul true to himself. The first readers object primarily because he "takes off," claiming this is artistically, patriotically, or morally no way to end the book.
Yet Yossarian gives up safety, rewards, and a hero's homecoming when he flees. He is in fact following an American tradition—escaping, or trying to escape, in order to save himself from absurdity, compromise, or despair. In what Hemingway called the source of modern American literature, Huckleberry Finn, Twain's puckish hero (after surviving a river's length of...
(The entire section is 1946 words.)